Nine under-the-radar players who have shined in training camp

Nine under-the-radar players who have shined in training camp

By Jeff Owens/Photos by Allen Sharpe

You know Jake Bentley is the leader of the Gamecock offense and is expected to produce in Bryan McClendon's new, up-tempo system. 

Deebo Samuel and Bryan Edwards are experienced, proven playmakers at wide receiver, and Zack Bailey is an All-SEC nominee at left guard. 

On defense, linebacker T.J. Brunson is the leader, while tackle Javon Kinlaw and defensive end D.J. Wonnum are expected to make a big impact up front. 

But several other players have shined in training camp. Under-the-radar players who have either surprised or who were already in position to make a leap forward and are doing so. 

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Here's a look at nine who could play big roles this season. 

C Donnel Stanley

The Gamecocks had a big hole to fill at center with the graduation of three-year starter Alan Knott. It didn't take them long to fill it. 

The coaching staff moved Stanley, who started at both guard spots last year, to center and he has shined. The 6-3, 315-pound junior was nominated for the Rimington Award for the nation's best center despite not having played a single game at the position. 

The center position is critical in South Carolina's new up-tempo offense, which requires the center to make split-second reads of the defense. 

"He's really developed into the leader of our offensive line," head coach Will Muschamp said. "I think that started in the spring and bled into the summer and I think he's doing a fantastic job of leading that group. I have been really pleased with how he has played."

The offensive line returns three starters in Stanley, Bailey and left tackle Dennis Daley. Sophomore Sadarius Hutcherson and senior Blake Camper have moved into the starting lineup after playing key roles as backups last season. 

Stanley, a two-year starter, has been the player to pull them all together.  

"He's been great," offensive line coach Eric Wolford said. "He did a great job all summer getting the guys together and doing extra, having cookouts, those kinds of things. That's the kind of person he is. I expect Donell to have a great year."

RB Rico Dowdle

With the offensive line coming together, the running game is starting to produce, with quarterback Jake Bentley labeling it "an A-plus" after a recent scrimmage. The Gamecocks are averaging more than five yards per carry in practice and scrimmages, according to estimates by Muschamp and running backs coach Bobby Bentley.

The run game is expected to benefit greatly from a healthy Dowdle, who was injured most of last season. Muschamp challenged the junior running back during the offseason to work on his conditioning and measures to help keep himself healthy. He's been pleased with his progress and it's shown in training camp.  

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Coach Bentley says Dowdle is battling junior Ty'Son Williams for the lead back role. 

"He looks better, he's faster," Bentley said. "He's more violent. When he turns his shoulders downhill, he's looking for contact and he's looking to create yards. He's healthy and that's what has excited the coaching staff." 

WR Shi Smith

The Gamecocks are loaded at wide receiver and will use a lot of three- and four-receiver sets. While Samuel, a senior, and Edwards, a junior, are expected to be the top targets, sophomore Shi Smith has also flashed in camp. 

"He has elevated his game," Jake Bentley said. "He's made some plays that you just kinda go. 'Wow, that's a big-time play.'"

Bentley says Samuel and Shi Smith have similar big-play skills and will be on the field together at times. 

"There are a lot of playmakers on the field at the same time and a lot of different sets that we have," he said. 

S Steven Montac

Montac has turned into one of South Carolina's most critical players. He is not only an experienced defensive back but he's the only one who has any experience at safety, the team's thinnest position. 

Montac, who has played in 21 games with eight starts the past two seasons, has developed into a leader. He's had to. 

Montac began camp working with Jamyest Williams, a sophomore who played corner last year. Jaylin Dickerson and other young players have also been in the mix as Muschamp and defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson have played mix and match during camp trying to find a solid combination. 

It's been up to Montac to guide them. 

"We got some young guys, we got some guys who haven't played safety before," Montac said entering camp. "I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't try to help them out."

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Muschamp has been pleased with Montac's leadership and play on the field. 

"Steve Montac is having a really good camp," he said. 

CB Jaycee Horn

Another defensive back who has drawn rave reviews in camp is true freshman Jaycee Horn, who is challenging for a spot at corner.

Horn, the son of former NFL wide receiver Joe Horn, has made some big plays in camp, including an interception at the goal-line and swatting a deep pass away from Samuel.  

Muschamp says Horn will "play a bunch."

"He has really good ball skills down the field and he matches up really well with some really good receivers we have. He's really progressed well," he said. 

DE Aaron Sterling

Sterling flashed big potential as a true freshman and after getting stronger in the offseason has taken another step forward in training camp. He is projected to start at defensive end opposite Wonnum. 

Though a bit undersized at 6-1, 245, Sterling wins battles on the edge with his speed. He played in all 13 games last year and had a pair of sacks and three tackles for loss. 

"He's going to catch tackles off guard, he's probably going to catch you guys off guard," DE/LB coach Mike Peterson said. "I'm excited about Aaron. … We are trying to get him to play every play 100 percent and 100 mph. When we do, it's special." 

DE Danny Fennell 

The Gamecocks expect to have a strong pass rush with Wonnum and Sterling on the edge and a host of Buck linebackers. Another player expected to benefit from that is junior Danny Fennell, who will add depth to both spots. He had three sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss last season. 

Fennell will back up Wonnum and also work with senior Bryson Allen-Williams at the Buck position. 

"Pound for pound, he's probably the strongest guy on this team," Peterson said. "And he's having a great camp." 

DB Nick Harvey

With South Carolina looking for depth in the secondary, grad transfer Nick Harvey has stepped up and provided both depth and versatility. Harvey, who started as a junior at Texas A&M, has played corner, nickel and safety in camp.

He has challenged for a starting spot at corner, but last week Muschamp moved him to safety, which has been shaky. He could be a player who plays all over the secondary, like Chris Lammons did last season. 

"He is an extremely bright young man. He learns well," Muschamp said. "He can do a lot of things for us."

TE Keil Pollard

Pat Washington's challenge in training camp has been to find a replacement for Hayden Hurst, which is not easy to do. 

The tight end coach hopes to have at least four options at the position. Seniors K.C. Crosby and Jacob August are experienced options but another playmaker has emerged in Pollard. 

The 6-1, 235-pound junior is a smaller option, like Crosby, and has flashed play-making skills in camp. Washington says he is "making some noise and making a case to play." 

Washington said Pollard is playing fast and adjusting quickly to the new up-tempo offense. 

"He understands what he's doing, whether it's the run game or the pass game, he is doing it really fast," he said. "When he is position to make a play, he's making plays, and you can't hid those things. … He is doing the things I think we have to do this year to win."